Regular church attendance & a strong sense of personal agency are linked to upward mobility for black men. #MLKDayhttps://t.co/Mu8SKQaofq
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WSJ Houses of Worship: Religion and the Bad News Bearers by Rodney Stark and Byron R. Johnson

HOUSES OF WORSHIP  AUGUST 26, 2011

Religion and the Bad News Bearers: The widely reported decline in women’s church attendance is implausible.

By RODNEY STARK AND BYRON JOHNSON

The national news media yawned over the Baylor Survey’s findings that the number of American atheists has remained steady at 4% since 1944, and that church membership has reached an all-time high. But when a study by the Barna Research Group claimed that young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves, it made headlines and newscasts across the nation—even though it was a false alarm.

Surveys always find that younger people are less likely to attend church, yet this has never resulted in the decline of the churches. It merely reflects the fact that, having left home, many single young adults choose to sleep in on Sunday mornings.

Once they marry, though, and especially once they have children, their attendance rates recover. Unfortunately, because the press tends not to publicize this correction, many church leaders continue unnecessarily fretting about regaining the lost young people.

In similar fashion, major media hailed another Barna report that young evangelicals are increasingly embracing liberal politics. But only religious periodicals carried the news that national surveys offer no support for this claim, and that younger evangelicals actually remain as conservative as their parents.

Given this track record, it was no surprise this month to see the prominent headlines announcing another finding from Barna that American women are rapidly falling away from religion. The basis for this was a comparison between a poll they conducted in 1991 and one they conducted in January of this year.

The reporters who ran with this story ought to have wondered why this change wasn’t picked up sooner if it was going on for 20 years. Many national surveys have been conducted during this period—in fact the Barna Group has been doing them all along. Did the organization check to see if its new results were consistent with its own previous data or with the many other national surveys widely available? There is no sign that it did. If it had, it would have found that its findings about women are as unfounded as previous claims about young people deserting the church and young evangelicals becoming liberals.

Barna reported in 2010 that about 40% of both men and women read the Bible during a typical week, as female weekly Bible-reading had fallen from 50% in 1991. By contrast, the 2007 Baylor national religion survey found that 29% of men and 40% of women read the Bible about weekly. The statistic for women is consistent with Barna’s reported findings, but the findings for men differ greatly.

The Baylor findings were in full agreement with the results of a 2000 Gallup Poll finding that 29% of men and 43% of women were weekly Bible-readers. This, in turn, was consistent with a 1988 study by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC), which found that 25% of men and 39% of women were weekly readers. If the Barna claim about a major decline in women’s Bible-reading is true, it must have happened in the past three years. This is quite unlikely, given the remarkable stability of the statistics over the past several decades.

As for the supposed decline in female church attendance, the best data come from the NORC, which has conducted annual surveys since 1972. Across 38 years, there have been only small variations in church attendance, and Barna’s reported 11 percentage-point decline in women’s church attendance (to 44% from 55%) simply didn’t happen. Nor has the gender gap narrowed. In 1991, according to NORC data, 38% of women and 28% of men said they attended weekly. In 2002, 36% of women and 24% of men attended weekly. In 2008, 36% of women and 25% of men attended weekly, and in 2010 it was 34% of women and 25% of men.

Finally, the Baylor data show that in 2007, 38% of women, compared with 26% of men, described themselves as “very religious.” So the gender gap—which holds for every religion in every nation around the globe—remains alive and well in America, just as it has for decades. As for media-hyped studies about religion, one should always beware of bad news bearers.

Messrs. Stark and Johnson are co-directors of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.
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